A case study in the downside of timeliness, “Lift” is a caper predicated on a truly ludicrous concept: an NFT increasing in value. That might have seemed plausible two years ago, when Netflix first acquired Daniel Kunka’s spec script, but F. Gary Gray’s followup to “Men in Black: International” has the misfortune of arriving shortly after the vast majority of non-fungible tokens were deemed officially worthless. Even if the MacGuffin that sets this heist picture in motion were a tangible object, however, “Lift” would suffer from a serious lack of star power at its center: Kevin Hart, who has neither the acting chops nor gravitas to lead such a project — or anything other than broad comedies, it seems.
The funnyman is woefully miscast as Cyrus Whitaker, the head of a jet-setting crew of thieves whose suave knowhow makes him ideally suited to work with Interpol on, you guessed it, one last job in order to thwart a terrorist whose own misdeeds make Cyrus look like a boy scout. The international police organization is represented by Abby Gladwell (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), with whom Cyrus happens to have history. You can likely already guess where most of this is leading.
The problem, then, is that the two have no chemistry together, and Mbatha-Raw can’t help upstaging Hart every time they share the screen. His thief-with-a-heart-of-gold routine is meant to slowly win her over — and us as well — but it feels like a put-on from the start. The problems extend to Cyrus’ team as a whole. That globetrotting ensemble includes master of disguise Denton (Vincent D’Onofrio), pilot Camila (Úrsula Corberó) and safecracker Magnus (Billy Magnussen), whose combined efforts will have to be enough to bring down financial terrorist Lars Jorgensen (Jean Reno, who isn’t given nearly enough to do). Their roles within the group are all familiar, but while the actors themselves are game, their parts are too thinly written for any of them to come across as more than cogs in a not-so-well-oiled machine.
At times it seems like “Lift” was intended as a “Spy”-style parody, and it might have been better as one: Hart delivering lines like “I would never lift anything from anyone who doesn’t deserve to lose it” while wearing a black turtleneck would be more enjoyable if the filmmakers leaned into the inherent silliness of it all. Ditto the third act, which takes place aboard a plane and completes the title’s pun: “Lift” takes itself much too seriously even when fishing for laughs.
Gray, who got his start in music videos before helming the likes of “Friday,” “Straight Outta Compton” and “The Fate of the Furious,” is an accomplished director and no stranger to a well-executed action sequence. It’s difficult to lay any of the problems with “Lift” at his feet, when the screenplay so clearly falls short. Practically every scene is a cliché, every line of dialogue an echo of a better one you’ve already heard in a better film. The streaming equivalent of a popcorn movie certainly has its appeal, but low-effort projects like this seem to have their shortcomings magnified when watched at home rather than in a theater. (Maybe watching it on a plane wouldn’t be so bad.)
As dire as multiplex fare tends to get in January, it seems that streaming fare is no less forgettable in the first month of the year. “Some people say they’re just a passing fad,” Hart says of NFTs in a climactic scene. “I say that all art just depends on the artist.” True enough, which is bad news for “Lift.”